Review: Collected Poems, Volume One by Peter Finch
Reading this 500 page blockbuster volume of Peter Finch’s poetry is like setting off an enormous box of fireworks.
Light blue touch paper, pause, don welder’s goggles and then enjoy the pyrotechnics, the magnesium flares of verbs, the sherbet fizz of nouns, the crackling rockets of verse as they variously burst, illuminate and flare.
See, it’s catching.
And this is only the first volume of his ‘Collected Poems,’ covering thirty years of busy experiment, poetry making and general rule bending. It’s involved some diligent collecting, too as it gathers some material from special limited issues and chapbooks which aren’t easily available, thus giving us the opportunity to consider the character, calibre and full range of this restlessly entertaining poet over three decades of writing.
The engine room of verse
His is a singular, special poetic voice and he certainly hasn’t stuck to the rules or followed the norms.
Peter Finch was working hard in the engine room of verse during the so-called Poetry Wars of the 1970s – when conservative practitioners battled the avant garde – and has kept on generating verse during a much bigger revolution when online outlets disarmed the cultural gatekeepers and poets found new audiences on the internet.
Throughout all this Finch was his own one-man poetry industry. He notes that he is now ‘taking advantage of my modernist upbringing: finding that what I have been doing for thirty years is fashionable again; watching others hijack old ideas and retread them as if they were new and as if they were their own.’
Peter Finch doesn’t want words to live calmly on the page, he wants to stand and deliver them and has done so and still does so with great elan and inventiveness.
I’ve seen him eat a Mills and Boon novel as part of his routine and delight audiences with tongue-twisting, effervescent sound poems which push poetry to the edge and then nudges it over.
‘Push the idea on until it breaks, flowers or dissolves,’ as he puts it. And because he’s done the circuit of readings and literary events he can give sage advice to others who wish to perform their stuff in public.
In “Advice for Perpetrators” he suggests: ‘before beginning smile/Before smiling locate the door.’
The poems sometimes explore Wales and the Welsh landscape through an experimental lens, thus allowing a bit of refraction and contortion. And fun too.
There’s a fake biography of R.S.Thomas including two words which can seem to sum up Thomas and his poetry – “Gospel. Austerity.”
Finch’s is certainly not a po-faced, reverential poetry: he’s too delighted in what’s there when you rummage around the toy box of language to stand too long in awe of the world or go full Wordsworth.
And he draws on material from many sources to inspire him.
He describes himself as a ‘full-time poet, psychogeographer, critic, author, rock fan and literary entrpreneur’ and so we get nods to other poets, mappings of places and spaces, sharp opinion, musical references and stories about trying to sell poetry.
The volume includes some of Finch’s greatest hits of course, such as “Welsh Wordscape,” the first part of which runs as follows:
To live in Wales,
Is to be mumbled at
by re-incarnations of Dylan Thomas
in numerous diverse disguises.
Is to be mown down
by the same words
at least six times a week.
Is to be bored
by Welsh visionaries
with wild hair and grey suits.
Is to be told
of the incredible agony
of an exile
that can be at most
a day’s travel away.
And the sheep, the sheep,
the bloody, flea-bitten Welsh sheep,
chased over the same hills
by a thousand poetic phrases
all saying the same things.
To live in Wales
is to love sheep
and to be afraid
It’s hard to read this popular poem without concluding that some things never change.
The poems arrayed here include prose poems and experimental verse that push individual words about as far as they can stretch: one poem plays with the word “moon” so that it fills a whole bunch of pages.
The poem, “On Criticism,” meanwhile, takes the form of various pages from a work of (diplomatically unidentifiable) criticism all scrunched up as if destined for the waste bin.
A poem such as “All I Need is Three Plums” is, in one sense, a long apology, but what a funny one, mixing confession with self-derision and nodding in the direction of William Carlos Williams as it does so (Williams wrote a poem called “This is Just to Say” about purloining some plums and Finch seems to steal the idea as if he’s reaching into the same fridge.)
A few sample stanzas captures the abject grovelling of it all:
I have sold your jewellery collection,
which you kept in a box, forgive me.
I am sorry, but it came upon me
and the money was so inviting, so sweet
and so cold.
I have failed to increase my chest measurements
despite bar bells
and my t-shirt is not full of ripples.
I am sweet but that is no consolation.
Your hand is cold.
I did not get the job, your brother did.
He is a bastard I told him, forgive me.
The world is full of wankers, my sweet.
I have lost the dog, I am sorry.
He never liked me, I am hardly inviting.
I took him off the lead in the park and
the swine chased a cat I couldn’t
be bothered to run after him.
Forgive me, I will fail less in the
You will see from the above selection of stanzas that one of the hallmarks of Finch’s poetry is a sense of fun and it’s not often you get to read a poem which is laugh out loud humorous.
The fun can start with poem titles such as “Putting Kingsley Amis in the Microwave” or in opening lines such as ‘There are three skinheads in the furniture department/Trying to shoplift a bed’ or by fashioning poems in which some of the words are replaced by, say, the word ‘Bighead’ as in the poem of the same name, resulting in such literary works as ‘Taming of the Bighead’ and ‘How Bigheaded Was My Valley.’ Not that Finch is a bighead, far from it.
Finch can find material pretty much anywhere. He fashions one piece from headlines found in monthly newspapers published for ex-pats and people of Welsh descent in the U.S.A.
He formulates a sound poem to replicate the mechanical noises of a Grip-vac, which I imagine is a sort of vacuum machine.
There is other shameless product placement too, such as ‘The Perfect St David’s Day Gift’ namely some foaming ‘Felinfoel Welsh valley Shampoo/made from real coconuts.’
It’s always busy stuff on the page as in the mind. He creates an A-Z of place names around the Severn estuary. He name checks a host of poets, from John Tripp through R.S.Thomas and Thom Gunn to J. H. Prynne and to his buddy in poetic exploration, Bob Cobbing.
He references plenty of music and musicians along the way, from blues to jazz, from Philip Glass to Chubby Checker, the Shirelles to Lou Reed, George Harrison to John Cooper Clarke. After all, all art aspires the condition of music.
Restlessly, questioningly, adventurously Finch cuts up text and mangles syntax. He finds the stuff of poetry whilst perusing the material on an O.S map of the Brecon Beacons or in examining the components of the overlooked landscape of the Wentloog Levels.
He does all this with both brio and bravura because Peter Finch is a swashbuckling buccaneer in Welsh poetry who does nothing less than take language for a ride. A rollercoaster ride.
His joy in doing all this is positively contagious. Celebrating the pulse, rhyme and rhythm. Chancing it. Pushing language into all shapes. Testing, testing, testing it until the line finally breaks.
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